Courtly Love and Psychoanalysis in Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess

… therapy is a course in resignation: a great deal will be gained if we succeed in “transforming your hysterical misery into everyday unhappiness,” which is the usual lot of mankind.” – Marcuse

The Book of the Duchess, one of Chaucer’s minor (but not un-famous) poems, is a courtly love tale that is extremely favourable to psychoanalytic readings. The beloved in courtly love, and the analyst in psychoanalysis, are master signifiers, in whose absence nothing is possible. Two characters, the Man in Black and the Dreamer have a relationship in the poem that closely resembles the relationship between a (psycho)analyst and an analysand. The Man in Black’s symptom, contained within his narrative, is a high anxiety lack over the loss of his beloved White; she is his master, he is her slave: her absence / death is a typical insurmountable obstacle that separates them, or, rather, him form her. Far from destroying his love for her, her death, if anything, increases his desire. Desire here is meant in two senses; firstly in the sense of the standard dictionary definition as noun and verb (e.g. my desire is … / I desire that …) and in the sense that it denotes lack of what is desired on the part of the desirer.

At the very outset of the poem, the Narrator articulates his symptom as “purely for defaute of slep … / I have felynge in nothyng” (l. 5-11). This contrasts with the symptoms of Alcyone and the Man in Black, because their symptom is not indifference or insensitivity – but a radical involvement with, a hypersensitivity to, their joys and sorrows; they both resent the fact “that I was wrought / bore!” (l. 90 / 1301) after losing their beloved. These anxieties are parallel to the Narrator’s lassitude from lack of sleep; the Narrator turns to literature to relieve his lack of sleep and feeling, Alcyone turns to prayer and dream to learn that her beloved, Seys, is dead, and the Man in Black turns to the Dreamer to recount his loss of White.

Between the dream, dreamer, and dreamed are lines of force: the push and pull of desire, what conjoins / separates the desirer from the desired. Following these lines of force, the shape of a triangle becomes visible: the “i” Narrator of the poem as a whole, the dreamer who represents that “i” in the dream, and the Man in Black, the main figure of what the dreamer dreams of. It is White’s death, her permanent absence, that forever separates the Man in Black from her: it is the role of the Dreamer, as interlocutor, as analyst that allows the Man in Black to symbolise, that is, partially realize White’s presence through recounting the tale and the grief that accompanies it.

This triangle mirrors the triangle between the Narrator, his lack of sleep, and the work he reads (Ovid’s Metamorphoses) that puts him to sleep. The story of Seys and Alcyone is structurally similar to the Man in Black’s situation relative to White. Both of these triangles signify the content of the problem of absence, caused by death, within the tradition of courtly love; the poem itself and the dream therein are attempts to reach a solution with regards to the triangular problem of separation anxiety / jealousy: lover, beloved, obstacle / separation.

The solution that the poem and dram seem to suggest is profoundly psychoanalytical; the “I”, Alcyone, and the Man in Black all sisplay symptoms, However, “I’s” symptom is much different from either Alcyone’s or the Man in Black’s: “I” seems to suffer, not from being in a state of sorrow (like Alcyone and the Man in Black) but from an incapacity to feel either joy or sorrow, in addition to not being able to sleep. Alcyone and the Man in Black face a similar problem insofar as what they desire is absent from them, like the Narrator is from feeling joy or sorrow.

The solution to the Narrator’s sleep disorder is reading; Alcyone’s is dreaming; the Man in Black’s is telling the Dreamer his story. The primary problem of the poem, however, is left unresolved at the end: “This was my sweven; now hit ys doon ” (l. 1334); that is, the problem of the Narrator’s indifference towards joy or sorrow is left ambiguous. He does seem to learn that the joy of (courtly) love is essentially “sweet-bitter”; the inversion of the term indicates the temporal order of desire that (courtly) love’s sweetness comes first (the joy of fusion with the beloved object’s presence) and is followed by bitterness (the mindless despair of being obstructed / separated from the beloved object: its absence).

Two passages from Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet will help in understanding the paradoxical nature of desire and love: “All human desire is poised on an axis of paradox, absence and presence its poles, love and hate its motive energies” (11) and “A space must be maintained or desire ends” (26). What Carson’s insight adds is precisely the paradox that faces the Narrator, Allcyone, and the Man in Black; that, because of separation from the object desired (its lack, its death) the object is desired through the hatred of absence. This hatred is the anxiety of the slave in the absence of the master.

The Man in Black, his status as White’s slave, is obvious when he says, “hit were beter serve hir for noght / Than with another to be wel” (l. 844-5). WhenWhite, at first, says “Nay” (l. 1243) she effectively reduces the Man in Black to a state of total devotion – a necessary condition before she gives the Man in Black “the noble yifte of hir mercy” (l. 1270). Of particular interest here is the negation that leads to the affirmation of White’s “mercy” described as a gift; just as the Narrator offers gifts to the gods, like Alcyone and her acts of prayer, the Man in Black offers his story to the Dreamer in exchange for the Dreamer’s capacity to interlocute.

During the exchange between the Man in Black and the Dreamer, the Man in Black asserts “thow nost what thow /menest; / I have lost more than thou wenest” (l. 1137-8). He is dissatisfied with the Dreamer’s interlocution when the Dreamer offers only absurd commentaries; however, the Dreamer’s strategy, as an analyst is to get the analysand to go on, which the Man in Black does. It is because “we analysts deal with slaves who think they are masters” (Lacan, 2002, 242)) and that

the subject is precisely the one we encourage, not to say it all, as we tell him in order to charm him – one cannot say it all – but rather to utter stupidities … it is with these stupidities that we do analysis (Lacan, 1998, 22).

It is the Dreamer’s seemingly shallow reading of the Man in Black’s story that leads the Man in Black to take the position of master, while remaining White’s slave; as far as he is still White’s servant, he does not occupy the position of master even in relation to the Dreamer because the Dreamer authorizes the Man in Black’s story, insofar as the Dreamer is also the Narrator of the poem. The Dreamer, like White, negates the seriousness of the Man in Black’s problem with a deflating aloofness:

What los ys that? quod I thoo; / “Nyl she not love yow? Ys hyt soo? / Or have ye oght doon amys, / That she hath left yow? Ys hyt this? / Gor Goddes love, telle me al (l. 1139-43).

Here the dreamer is not only comical but is also displaying a critical indifference to the Man in Black’s tale; perhaps also the indifference identified as his symptom as well …

Another point to add regarding courtly love is that

[courtly love] is a highly refined way of making up for the absence of the sexual relationship, by feigning that we are the ones who erect an obstacle thereto … it is rooted in the discourse of loyalty, of fidelity to the person. In the final analysis, the “person” always has to do with the master’s discourse (Lacan, 1998, 69).

Alcyone and the Man in Black are both trying to make up for the absence of, if not the sexual relationship then, their beloved’s presence. They both show loyalty and fidelity to their masters, even after they have died, although their desire (in terms of what they lack) undergoes a profound shift from being pleasurable joy (i.e. love) to melancholy and sadness (i.e. hatred). in the continual absence of their masters. It is only through the negative that either retains any sense of the lost beloved object, and, indeed, the only way that either can retain any connection to the lost object at all. In the absence of the master as a signifier that does not lack there is no other possibility for the slave except desire dept alive out of hatred of absence; the Dreamer (analyst) poses as a substitute master in order for the subject to symbolize the loss of the beloved object: in his story, the Man in Black recalls his love by symbolizing her. This parallels Alcyone’s prayer (to a master signifier, which results in a dream of her beloved Seys and also the poem as a whole, if the effort of reading the poem is an attempt to understand how the Narrator overcame (or did not overcome) his original symptom. In my analysis, neither Alcyone, the Man in Black, or the Narrator overcome their symptoms completely, although some progress is made in each case: Alcione sees her beloved again, the Man in Black asserts himself gaining a limited subjectivity apart from White, and the Narrator goes to sleep and has a dream. But does the Narrator regain his feeling?

The answer to this question is ambiguous, because we have the dream as it is written, which would imply an effort … but on the other hand, the last line of the poem suggests that the indifference has persisted. He does, however, display compassion for the Man in Black’s sorrows (l. 1310) … What I have tried to show is that the exchange between the Dreamer and the Man in Black resembles what happens in psychoanalysis as a practice of healing; that desire, especially in the form of courtly love, is paradoxically an object-cause in both negative and positive ways; that for love to be possible, even a post-humous love, a master must be available to make a subject out of the lover; and that the structure of the triangle is essential to understanding desire as it functions in this poem.


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